Triangle of Sadness
Like its titular metaphor, Ruben Östlund’s follow-up to his caustic and controversial Palme winner unfurls in cryptic yet characterizable fashion; in physiognomy, the “triangle of sadness” delineates the space between a person’s eyebrows which, extended thematically, alludes to all the ambiguity or malleability present in the construction and perception of a personality. Here, of course, the triangle already connotes, perhaps subconsciously, several other thematic extensions: the Bermuda Triangle, for one, wouldn’t be a terrible guess in light of the film’s grand setting, a luxury yacht; nor would one be quite mistaken in recoursing to psychoanalysis, whether Freud (id, ego, superego) or Lacan (Real, Imaginary, Symbolic). But let us, for now, return to the literal: as will be easily divined from the synopsis, or the broader strokes of Östlund’s oeuvre, Triangle of Sadness is primarily about images and their apprehension, appearances and their realization. Continuing where The Square had previously left off, Östlund mounts, or appears to mount, a scathing satire of upper-class wealth and degeneracy; where his object of derision had previously been the curated world of art and artistic pretension, the lens now turns to a more generalized framing of the 1%, a symbolic summation of excess and profligacy.
Seen in this light, Triangle of Sadness veers dangerously close to good-old familiarity, borrowing from public domain templates excoriating those in power, and doing so in predictable, knowing ways that run the significant risk of hypocrisy. (Bloomberg reports: “’Triangle of Sadness’: Biting Social Satire Delights Cannes,” the archetypal imaginary long cemented in pop culture, not least in Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” couture at last year’s Met Gala.) At face value, and expectedly so, satirizing the rich reeks of smug impotence. Opening with a tongue-in-cheek sequence of male models at an audition (“Show me that Balenciaga look! Oh, I’m sorry, I think it’s back to H&M again.”), followed by a model runway (“CYNICISM MASQUERADING AS OPTIMISM”), Triangle of Sadness forebodes an excruciating two-and-a-half hours of cheap shots and stale lampooning ahead. In a way, however, Östlund’s film emphasizes precisely this smug impotence as its narrative meridian. It’s divided, rather unequally, into three parts: one, centering around young professional model couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and their conversations after a fancy dinner; two, Carl and Yaya’s vacation onboard the luxury yacht, in the company of oligarchs, retired arms dealers, and tech millionaires; and three, their unforeseen diversion of itinerary onto a mysterious island, company significantly reduced.
Both the film’s supporters and detractors alike will recognize Östlund’s penchant for cringe comedy, here embellished with a schadenfreude on par with that dinner sequence in The Square. In part one, Carl and Yaya argue about who pays for dinner — he says it’s her turn, that she’s previously offered to pay; she hems and haws, scolds him for pettiness; he rejoins with a desire not to reinforce traditional gender roles; she reveals later that she was being manipulative, that it was a test to see if he could accede to a trophy wife like her down the road. In part two, the staff onboard are told to abandon their posts — cooks included — and go swimming instead, at the behest of one Russian lady (“I command you: Enjoy the moment!”). During dinner with the ship’s captain, a staunch Marxist, turbulent waves accost the diners’ senses and stomachs; the captain himself bunkers up with the lady’s husband, an industrialist and self-proclaimed “King of Shit,” to crack jokes about communism versus capitalism. The schadenfreude at work achieves its healthy optimum even before Carl and Yaya’s first joint appearance onscreen, and quickly overshoots that optimum even before shit, quite literally, comes flying.
Arguably, the excess of cringe comedy — its scatological dimension, coupled with the over-the-top dissection of social and interpersonal mannerisms — should be read less as routine and banal commentary about how the rich lead inauthentic and vulgar lives; that, as is itself well-known, is mostly a tautology today. Instead, Triangle of Sadness can be construed foremost as an exercise both in formal discipline and physical abandon: formally disciplined insofar as its framing recalls the maximalist yet oriented set-pieces of Wes Anderson, and physically abandoned to gross-out compilations of vomit and violence. This exercise, more than ever, relishes bourgeois discomfort for its own sake, and not in a particularly detachable, conveniently contextualized way; here, most popular readings of Östlund, whether favorable or otherwise, miss the point by commenting on the populist revolutionary zeal of the yacht staff against their bloated overlords. There is revolutionary zeal, but its implementation is, for the film, carried out at a superficial level. More pertinent is the refreshing perspective Östlund’s main characters accord us, displaying simultaneously an infuriating naïveté (largely Carl) and a premature worldliness (mostly Yaya) emblematic of contemporary influencer culture beyond the stultifying definitions of wealth as birthright.
One can therefore triangulate the film within its milieu as a slight but sly addition to the litany of social commentaries attempting to expose what goes on above. In its quieter, less gaudy moments, Triangle of Sadness exhibits an updated vocabulary that speaks to the relationship between an evolving social hierarchy and the firm persistence of this hierarchy itself. No longer is it just the leery Russian or the English fat cat who bear the brunt of our scorn; these are caricatures, and when wealth democratizes (and it does), it takes away the viewer’s easy right to reduce the failings of greed to an ideology sustained by specific, identifiable culprits. Whether sincere Carl or shrewd Yaya, the film flaunts their performative agendas for all to see, doing so less in abstract terms (as the Marxist-capitalist dinner dialectic, whose faux-intellectual notes are easily mistaken for the sensibilities of directors like Julian Radlmaier, might suggest) and more through lived, tactile barbs against their characters. Crucially, of course, we find that neither theoretical dialectics nor Hobbesian violence provides quite a satisfying response to the problem at hand, and — trapped first in the yacht, then on the island — what this gives way to is a deceptively breezy lull interspersed with bouts of manic, discomfiting irruption. For both viewers and protagonists entrapped within the confines of satire, a creeping pessimism abounds through our recognition of this satire and inability to do much about it. And again, true to its title, Triangle of Sadness concludes in a delightfully bathetic ending, equal parts enigmatic and unambiguous; as if mocking the gestures of the human face, our ability to map and describe its expressions but never truly grasp the intent behind them.
Writer: Morris Yang
Pitched as a remake of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO opens with an overhead shot of a young woman performing in a circus ring with a donkey named Eo, the entire scene filtered in an infernal red. From there, the film simply follows Eo as he, like Balthazar before him, changes owners. The reason for the first change, in which he is snatched away from a young woman named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), has something to do with a law preventing animals from taking part in circus performances; very quickly, though it becomes clear that logical connections between scenes are none too instructive for how the film operates.
The past few years have seen a number of animal-centered films — Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda (2020) and Andrea Arnold’s Cow (2021), for example — which rely on a simplistic anthropomorphism, asking us to identify with non-human creatures, but only by rigid analogy with experiences that we can already recognize as human (e.g., motherhood in Gunda, labor exploitation in Cow). Skolimowski’s energies, by contrast, are directed in the extreme opposite direction, asking us to identify with Eo the donkey by immersing us into a world of alien images and sensations, by showing us things we have never seen before: the camera prowling through a space piled up with caged foxes being prepared for the slaughter; a vertiginous approach toward a windmill, the camera then turning with its movements; an upside-down image of a figure skiing in the night.
One scene connects EO to Eadweard Muybridge’s early motion studies; a more contemporary connection might be to the work of Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (2012) in particular, what with that film’s wild surrealist leaps, the conspicuous blurring of its frame’s edges, and the significant role animals and non-human presences play across its runtime. EO’s presentation of its (Polish) human figures is, reportedly, aggressively stereotyped. But while this may understandably be a limitation for some — particularly since Skolimowski has not been based in Poland for decades now — it fits in with the film’s attempts to plunge us, for 86 minutes, into an entirely alien perspective, immersing us into a world that both is and is not our own.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
Diary of a Fleeting Affair
If one were to point to a contemporary French filmmaker who has most consistently tried to redefine the rom-com genre’s infrastructures within the broader constraints of European arthouse cinema, perhaps no one would be a better choice than Emmanuel Mouret. While combining the friendlier, more familiar patterns of the Americans (such as Woody Allen) with a relatively more sophisticated design and mood of a specifically French tradition — say, in the comedies of Philippe de Broca or Sacha Guitry — Mouret is always able to shape a unique style that centers around the problematic relationship between fidelity and infidelity, sensual love and sexual passion. His most recent effort, Diary of a Fleeting Affair, embodies a similar attitude and aesthetic. Right from the beginning, without delivering any specificity as to the backgrounds of his leading pair, Mouret throws us into the middle of their relationship: Simon (Vincent Macaigne; a married man) and Charlotte (Sandrine Kiberlain; a single mother) initially meet at a local bar. Then, as the title foreshadows and various on-screen cards marking the passage of time enforce, Mouret focuses our attention on the various situations and moral conditions, both comic and heartfelt, that the couple face during their relatively brief liaisons which gradually evolve from the merely sexual to a more complicated emotional bond.
The flair and flavor of Mouret’s slick style in Diary of a Fleeting Affair is exactly what he’s been refining for almost two decades, transforming even the most abstract and almost implausible scenarios into convincing streams of events without ever slightly skewing toward an openly naturalistic approach. Through various modes of verbal and bodily expressions, concise framings, heightened spatial awareness, brisk music scores, and an easygoing chemistry between Kiberlain and Macaigne, who prove convincing in their roles of an incompatible couple — Charlotte as an amiable, open-minded, and playful extrovert to Simon’s mostly anxious, awkward introvert, physically defined by his usually dwindled posture (viewed best during a teasing threesome scene) — Mouret delivers both a jovial and surgical inspection of the moral and philosophical dilemmas inherent to modern affairs —especially those of the middle-aged — in bittersweet dramedy form.
The director’s formal strategy in designing his mise-en-scène also plays a crucial part in placing the viewers in the unbiased position of observer, specifically when his camera straddles an intentional distance from events (usually through arranging frame-in-frame compositions via doorways) or when he ventures into the non-diegetic, tinkering with comedic tropes of presence and absence, seen and unseen (an emblematic example: Charlotte and Simon talk behind closed doors in a dressing-room and a stranger approaches, overhearing their funny conversation without the couple being aware of her presence). The singularly quirky (and surely very French) quality of Diary of a Fleeting Affair should, however, still most fully resides in the peculiar conversations themselves that Simon and Charlotte engage in throughout. What prompts great amusement in this fleeting affair is the direct and sincere outspokenness of what they say to each other; in fact, they never try to conceal anything, neither out of personal caution nor out of social calculation, and this accords their conversations an unexpected, even uncanny pleasantness. Diary of a Fleeting Affair, then, could be considered Mouret’s most tender, modestly scaled film — for the most part, Kiberlain and Macaigne are the only people who are to remain present on the screen — one which attests to the power of sincerity rather than hefty thematizing in its construction of thoughtful, authentic dramedy.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Love According to Dalva
Writer-director Emmanuelle Nicot’s Love According to Dalva opens with the titular character (Zelda Samson) being violently separated from her father in their own home at the hands of police. Adorned in glitzy evening attire and a heavy smattering of make-up, it’s only in the following scene, at a court-ordered medical examination, that we are able to see just how young Dalva truly is, her prepubescent face struggling to hold back tears as the doctor orders her to lay back and open her legs. It doesn’t take long for the viewers’ suspicions to be confirmed: 12-year-old Dalva had been kidnapped by her father at the age of five and forced into a romantic and sexual relationship that lasted seven years. One of the more remarkable aspects of Love According to Dalva, then, is that Nicot takes such potentially sensationalistic material and imbues it with a humanity that is bracing in its understatement. Nicot has no real interest in the tawdrier aspects of the crimes at hand, simply the devastating effects they have on Dalva herself, whose young mind is unable to comprehend the abuse she has endured.
Indeed, the first half of the film chronicles Dalva’a numerous attempts to see her imprisoned father, a near-impossible task due to the crime at hand and her social worker’s attempts at protecting his young charge’s fragile emotional state. Dalva is ordered to live in a state-run facility that houses dozens of other kids like herself who have nowhere else to go, their lives irrevocably damaged by the adults in their orbit. Dalva’s caseworker, Jayden (Alexis Manenti), is sympathetic to Dalva’s situation but has little patience for her numerous acts of rebellion, deploying a measure of tough love that proves more effective the longer she remains in his care. Dalva resents those individuals seeking to help; she, of course, sees nothing wrong with her formative circumstances, knowing nothing else in her young life. To her, love and sex are one in the same, as she has been hard-wired to believe that affection comes only through physical acts.
Love According to Dalva is predictably an emotionally taxing experience, blunt in the ways it exposes its lead character’s flawed thinking but still sympathetic to her struggles. To Nicot’s credit, never once does she take the easy way out when it comes to the emotional torment Dalva is forced to endure; this is not a film where one therapy session magically solves Dalva’s problems, or where the unexpected friendship from an understandably jaded roommate, Samia (Fanta Guirassy), fills her life with new levity. Put more explicitly, this is not a film about Dalva overcoming the abuse she endured, but rather a portrait of her trying to make some sort of sense of it in real-time, reckoning with the nearly impossible task of undoing seven years of brainwashing. Even when the film threatens to venture into melodramatic territory, such as Dalva’s romantic longing for the much older Jayden, it always feels organic to the wounded girl’s circumstance, and is handled with directness and authenticity, something the similarly themed Short Term 12 couldn’t accomplish.
Samson, for her part, is phenomenal in her feature film debut, forced to run nearly the gamut of human emotion — sometimes within seconds of each other, sometimes simultaneously — and never once striking a false note. Manenti is also impressive, taking a stock character and finding subtle shadings within. Nicot’s direction, meanwhile, is mostly unobtrusive, Academy ratio and handheld camerawork feeling quite obvious yet fairly appropriate given the subject matter. All told, the film is striking enough that it’s surprising to find this is Nicot’s debut, her sure hand and restrained instincts belying her relative inexperience. It goes without saying that Love According to Dalva isn’t an easy watch, but unlike so many calculatedly miserablist efforts dotting the cinema landscape, Nicot’s film musters genuine pathos without resorting to cheap emotional manipulation, a wonderful and rare achievement in our current Marvel-ous age of moviegoing.
Writer: Steven Warner
Sick of Myself
Everybody knows a low-stakes liar. Whether it’s Instagram exaggerations or anecdotes reconfigured to place themselves as the hero, this kind of one-upmanship is practically currency in the attention economy, a shortcut to fame for those attention-seekers who can get the balance just right. Signe, the protagonist of Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself, is an expert at this narcissistic game, carefully configuring situations that trade minimal lies for maximum attention, placing herself at the center of every conflict, perfectly posed and ready for when all eyes eventually turn to her. Her partner, Thomas, is just as flawed, with his entire artistic career seemingly just a vehicle for his own self-centeredness. When Thomas’s career takes off, Signe ups the ante with respect to her own lies, deliberately falling ill and going viral in the process.
Everywhere in Sick of Myself, characters know they are being watched. Borgli’s camera often lurks in the middle distance, a peeping tom without any hint of eroticism, a permanent voyeur at a remove from any emotional reality. Characters constantly reorient themselves under the glances of others, shifting to position their own bodies in whatever larger narrative they are trying to construct, whether it be the heroic bystander, the doting boyfriend, or any number of other roles. Borgli constructs a world where every character is an exhibitionist, though there isn’t necessarily any pleasure in the act. Borgli lingers on his characters in moments where they are being seen or preparing to be seen imminently, letting his audience into the brief moment before the mask goes on. While Signe and Thomas certainly find a certain thrill in their lies, Borgli’s invasive but still often distant camera implies another possibility — instead of a voyeur, the camera is a means of surveillance. The constant need to maintain a facade in public lends even background actors a degree of paranoia that shows sympathy to modern narcissists — Sick of Myself asks us whether it is really self-centered to be obsessed with self-image when the whole world is, in fact, watching?
As Signe, Kristine Kujath Thorp plays the narcissist almost as a gambling addict, balancing the thrill-seeking impulse with the shame of discovery and even a degree of solemnity, as she bows to the inevitability of her own instincts without so much as a second thought. The intensity of her performance, almost entirely self-serious, is at glorious odds with the rest of Borgli’s film, and makes her the perfect satirical center of the film. Styled in a silk headscarf and sunglasses, Signe is a perverse reinterpretation of the Hollywood ingenue, and the seamless way Borgli grounds Kujath Thorp’s tragicomic performance ensures his satire has some actual bite to it. At its heart, Sick of Myself is less interested in making dull, sweeping statements about social media or the state of society and never opts for anything so tactless — the closest Borgli gets to this type of facile analysis is in Signe’s own ego-driven fantasies, which have none of the nuance of her actual life. Signe’s lies aren’t entirely driven by a need for fame or a result of a brain warped by social media, but they are instead about control. Making headlines means having a degree of control over one’s own public narrative, being the more successful partner equates to Signe having control in her relationship, and even her fantasy of a public redemption arc is a coping mechanism when her lies begin to spiral out of control. A strong script from Borgli weaves satire expertly with character study and offers a sharp, considered take on the very present attention economy.
Writer: Molly Adams
La Jauría, the debut film of Colombian director Andrés Ramírez Pulido, is set deep in the jungle at a strange prison camp for boys, a dilapidated retreat that its prisoners are forced to renovate. Camp leader Alvaro gives the boys their work tasks, enforces strange punishments like holding an uncomfortable position for a length of time, and leads them in rehabilitation therapy. That therapy mostly consists of repeating mantras, specifically ones of so-called self-recognition. In sessions, the boys are made to not only identify their usually many crimes and confess, but to go farther and identify themselves with the crime, as if it is an innate part of their identity: “I am a thief, I am a drug addict, I am a murderer.”
Eliu (Jhojan Estiven Jiminez) is a murderer. In the film’s opening, he and his troublemaking friend El Mono (Maicol Andres Jiminez) stand under streetlights, blades in their hands until a motorcycle comes by. They kill the rider in what turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. Eliu claims he mistook the man, a minor crime boss called The Invisible One, for his father whom he had planned to kill instead. Now he’s here, doing useless therapy and cleaning out a dirty pool with a bucket while, on the margins, the gang whose leader he killed is looking for him. When El Mono is transferred to the facility, Eliu is set on edge, seeing his partner-in-crime as a black hole of bad influence. Indeed, El Mono’s presence upsets the balance. He mouths off in a way the others don’t and, one night, he attempts to escape.
There is no escape, though, because in La Jauría the surrounding jungle, and the world at large really, is an extension of the carceral facility. If you run, you will be caught. Recidivism is a given and cycles of violence pass from father to son and brother to brother. Before and after El Mono is caught in the beautifully photographed jungle, the others are punished for it, made to work hours before eating. La Jauría is a gorgeous, hypnotic film, one where memorable images sometimes repeat, imbuing the film with a kind of monotony that remains gripping. And while the film’s messaging might skew toward the simplistic, it’s not necessarily incorrect in its assessments: specifically, in presenting a milieu of inescapable trouble both inside and outside prisons.
When his little brother visits, Eliu sees the violent life that led him astray taking root in his sibling, and he’s helpless to support him. But his brother, like all the other boys in the film, fades into a collective statement. Outside of Eliu, there’s little definition to the boys besides the thematic functions they serve. There’s plenty of texture in the film’s images but little in its writing (which can quickly flatten character for the sake of a point). A version of La Jauría with a cast of more detailed, individualized characters might have had room to display a more dynamic version of who these boys are. As it is, we get only the briefest glimpses of these boys behaving like young people. When they repeat those “I am a murderer” mantras, it’s obvious that the filmmaker is troubled by this flat identification. Ramírez Pulido goes to lengths to illustrate the conditions that made the boys this way, and he does so poetically and effectively. But what he doesn’t provide is an alternative to the mantras. These boys are more than their crimes, but La Jauría often struggles to tell us who they, in fact, are.
Writer: Chris Mello